By Brian Spencer
Home to more than 100 microbreweries and counting, my great home state of Michigan lies squarely at the forefront of America’s well-documented craft beer boom. From restaurant tap lists to crappy party stores with handmade “Michigan Craft Beer Here!” signs stuck in the front windows, these locally brewed beers are increasingly, finally, infiltrating taps and shelf space once ruled by the Budweisers of the world.
I hadn’t been to Michigan in some time, so during a recent winter visit it was remarkable to see how much impact the state’s craft breweries have had on local drinking habits. You don’t show up at somebody’s house with a six-pack of Bud Lite anymore (or at least you shouldn’t) — you bring a sixer of Founders or Short’s or Atwater or New Holland. It’s a beautiful thing.
In two weeks I tasted as many Michigan beers as possible, doing so somewhat randomly, and left with a battered liver and a few favorites. Here’s five of ‘em:
Captain Fantasy (Short’s Brewing Company) - “Please would you like to be, somewhere floating free? Seems my destiny, Captain Fantasy.” Aaron Freeman, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Singer Formerly Known as Gene Ween, didn’t in a LSD-induced haze pen the opening lyrics to Ween’s “Captain Fantasy” thinking they might one day inspire a beer, but they would make sense, in a weird Ween-ish way, as the bottle’s tagline. That should come as no surprise given the brewery responsible for this unique saison.
Located upstate in Bellaire and founded in 2002 by then 22-year-old Joe Short, Short’s Brewing Company is the world’s only brewery at which each food item on its deli/brewpub’s menu is named after a Ween song; as you may have guessed, Short and his co-owner wife Leah Short are huge fans. A handful of its long list of microbrews also follow suit — Freedom of ’76 and Stroker Ace, for example — though Captain Fantasy is the only one I’ve so far gotten my hands on. I’m glad I did, acquiescing to the friendly but firm recommendation from the beer manager at Busch’s Fresh Food Market in South Lyon. (“Listen, I did everything you have to do, I jumped through all the hoops, and I guarantee we’re the only place in South Lyon that’s going to have this.”)
Brewed with pears and in collaboration with Chicago’s Half Acre Beer Company, this somewhat farmhouse-funky saison poured a beautiful golden color and reeked of floral bouquet. At first sip I thought of yellow raisins drying in the sun, then of an early-evening champagne toast. It was slightly bitter going down, but it was a bitterness quickly forgotten in a piquant flash of light citrus fruit. Balanced and packing a nice 6.7% ABV wallop, Captain Fantasy was one of my favorites from the trip.
Next time, the ultimate nerd-out: drinking Captain Fantasy while — wait for it — listening to “Captain Fantasy.” Oh, shut up.
Mayan Mocha Stout (Odd Side Ales) – Having just opened three short years ago on the shores of Lake Michigan in Grand Haven, Odd Side Ales is a relative newcomer to the state’s craft beer scene, but they’ve fast earned a good reputation as a microbrewery unafraid to stretch out and take risks — risk which often yield tasty results. The Mayan Mocha Stout is one such success.
I tasted this one on tap at Slows Bar-B-Q, the always-jampacked downtown Detroit temple of craft beers and barbecue. Black as the deepest reaches of space, smelling of roasted espresso sprinkled with a dash of cinnamon, yet much thinner than your average everyday stout, the Mayan Mocha is the closest alcoholic approximation of melted dark chocolate I’ve ever tasted. It’s somewhat uncanny just how closely the flavor profiles match up: After my brother and I tasted it, we looked at each other and said “It tastes exactly like dark chocolate.” It really does.
This beer is also brewed with habanero peppers, reflecting Odd Side Ales’ stated inspiration of Mexican hot chocolate, but for me any hot-pepper heat was almost completely lost in the chocolate-coffee flavors and aromas; it was there, but more like a background extra than a supporting actor. That’s fine — any more spice might have made this a one-and-done stout instead of one I’d happily take for a second-round spin.
Pitmaster Porter (Blue Tractor BBQ & Brewery) – One of a number of craft breweries clustered near Main Street in downtown Ann Arbor — Jolly Pumpkin, below, is one of them — Blue Tractor has something of a buttoned-up vibe in its main dining room upstairs, but in its somewhat hidden basement bar you’ll find a decidedly more laid-back crowd, a lot more space, and a younger average age. It was there in the basement, passing wait time for our upstairs table over a cold pint or two, that I first sipped the smoky, seasonal Pitmaster Porter.
I can’t say that there’s anything particularly unique about Blue Tractor’s porter, but there’s something to be said for a well-conceived dark beer like this one, particularly one served in a cozy basement on a bone-chilling winter evening; hey, home-field advantage does count for something. With a pitch-black pour and modest, frothy head that didn’t stick around too long, the Pitmaster had a pleasantly creamy body and tasted of artisanal coffee boiled over a campfire and filtered through wood chips. I imagine this would pair quite nicely with the restaurant’s smoked beef brisket, Carolina pulled pork, or triple mac & cheese.
Weizen Bam Biere (Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales) – Based in Dexter, with brewpub outlets up north in Traverse City and another in Ann Arbor, Jolly Pumpkin stakes much of its enduring popularity on a mouthwatering suite of sour ales, including its seasonal weizen bam biere. I normally shy from beers with a low ABV — in this case 4.5% — since I generally like for all those calories to pay me back with a buzz, but I stopped by the Ann Arbor branch for lunch while nursing a mild case of the munchies. Responsible adult that I am I thought it too early in the day for anything too strong. Good move.
Jolly Pumpkin’s summertime farmhouse wheat, something of a sister beer to its E.S. Bam, Bam Noire, and award-winning Bam Biere, was a perfect mid-afternoon tipple. With its cloudy golden color, subtle whiffs of bananas and cloves, and super-sour taste, this one makes for a great first step into the brewery’s adventurous beer list. I came back a few days later and quaffed a few winter seasonals — there was a pumpkin ale and Christmasy ale in there, but I wasn’t on “official duty” so excuse the fog — and these were similarly delish.
Porter (Founders Brewing Company) – Along with Short’s and Kalamazoo’s Bell’s Brewery — I like Bell’s, but feel they’re a tad overrated — Founders Brewing Company, located in Grand Rapids, is often cited as one of the best microbreweries in Michigan. With good reason: Among many other well-deserved accolades, craft beer bible Beer Advocate currently ranks its Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Breakfast Stout among the top 17 of its “Top 250 Beers,” while four more fall within the top 205. Their velvety Porter clocks in at #201.
This shut-eyes black beer is everything a porter should be: rich, smooth, subtle back-end hops, roasty, and slightly sweet. If you poured dark chocolate syrup over a chocolate cake frosted with smoked caramel, then distilled it down into a beer fermented with licorice nibs, you might get something like this satisfying porter.